Best in class? London schools under ‘intense’ pressure to deliver

Tuesday 22 October 2019

How are budget and site restrictions, changing demographics and the need to ensure flexibility in designs being overcome when it comes to London schools? A breakfast talk at NLA sought to find out.

HKS Architects’ education leader Rachel Moulton provided an overview into the sector including views from education building users, with accessibility and suitability of sites high up on the list of challenges. ‘Especially in London, we’re running out of really suitable school sites’, Moulton said, with the ‘easy win sites’ gone, and leading teams to look at mixed use sites or building tall.

Budgets are lower now than in the last few years, Moulton added, and schools are waiting a lot longer to get their buildings, putting programme pressures onto the design team and critical decamp timings. ‘We’re looking to push the site in the brief as far as possible and push the box’, said Moulton, with an emphasis on flexibility and close consultation with school teams, use of VR and pushing fees hard. ‘Challenges are more intense’, she said, with political uncertainty and public spend pressures adding to the mix. The DfE are pushing innovation, but are they funding it?, asked Moulton.

Some projects, however, are showing ways forward.

Haverstock partner Claire Barton pointed to her practice’s Belham Primary School which opened in September 2019 and whose success as a ‘mature primary school’ in the middle of the Peckham Rye community was down to appropriate scale, an open-minded local authority in Southwark and good access to the end users. ‘This school was built with an exceptional head teacher who we had open access to’ she said. ‘We were never chaperoned when we saw her. We had a programme where we could talk to her, meet the stakeholders and enjoy the process of designing the building.’ The practice made an opportunity of the challenges, including its status as a listed board school (and thus Historic England’s involvement), but a problem was that the DfE’s schedule of accommodation was ‘hugely prescriptive’, said Barton.

Hawkins/Brown partner Carol Lees took the audience through four Southwark schools – Crawford Primary, Keyworth Primary, Ivydale Primary and Cherry Garden SEN School, again praising the local authority client. Lees said that although the schools were all different, the designers looked to get savings through the use of time-saving CLT and ‘working every space hard’. ‘We worked with the kids a lot’, Lees said, ‘such a lot of enthusiasm!’. One future for schools is embracing mixed use, said Lees, such as the Nightingale Primary School in Hackney, which it designed with 89 private homes on top. ‘Happy kids; that’s what we’re aiming at’.

Finally, Lee Mainwaring, design director at Architecture Initiative, said his practice was actively promoting refurbishment and mixed use, talking through its Northampton International Academy project, a reworking of a post office sorting centre built in the 1980s, which it persuaded the DfE to buy. The architects worked ‘with the structure’ rather than fighting it, creating new mezzanine levels, a new public square at the front, theatre space, and a five-court sports hall on the roof of the 100m long building. ‘The main aspect was changing the perspective of the community to this building’, said Mainwaring. ‘A brutalist building can really work for a school.’ The London Screen Academy, meanwhile, involved ‘carving out’ the middle of the existing building out and inserting specialist spaces for Working Title Films inside, with classrooms able to enjoy large amounts of daylight. 

Chair Lara Kinneir from NLA said all the projects demonstrated what could be achieved with hard work and dedication to negotiation. But could post-occupancy be a bigger part of the equation? In reality there are very few serious examples of this, said the panel during discussion, but the real frustration was that architects and designers in this sector can offer so much to the process of strategic planning of schools – but are not involved.

Words by David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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